There’s an actress under that familiar beehive of silver hair, but you may lose sight of her listening to the wholly committed Holland Taylor twang her way through the life story of late Texas Gov. Ann Richards in “Ann,” a play Taylor both conceived (one day, she acknowledges, while driving to work on the set of TV’s “Two and a Half Men”) and stars in.
“Molly Ivins said I have Republican hair,” Taylor cracks, early in the almost two-hour solo performance at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. It’s one of dozens of moments that underscore the feisty persona of a woman who, as a divorced, female recovering alcoholic, became Democratic governor of a state with the ninth largest economy in the world in 1991.
Taylor, most familiar as the headstrong mom of Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer on “Men” (Cryer is among “Ann’s” backers) has crafted a passionate love letter to Richards, who died in 2006. Its creation was an immersive process: she crisscrossed the country for four years, interviewing people who knew the governor, watching video coverage and pouring over personal and public papers at the University of Texas.
Hair aside, Richards was best known for one line, uttered at the 1988 Democratic Convention. George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee for president, was born with a “silver foot in his mouth,” she said, cementing her place in American folklore. That moment is evoked as a prelude to the dialogue in “Ann,” as an image from the convention flashes on a video screen. (Taylor, with restraint, has actually omitted the bon mot from the script.)
“Ann” opens with Richards delivering a college commencement address, a conceit that allows Taylor to chronicle the future leader’s life growing up in Lakeview, Texas, near Waco. We get an appreciation of Richards’ parents, the doting, story-telling dad and impossible-to-please mother (“I see both of them in me like a swirl dip cone”) and a quick walk-through of her marriage to David Richards, a civil rights lawyer.
The entree into politics happens when a group of friends comes to the house urging David to run for county commissioner. He refuses, but suggests Ann as a candidate. Explains Richards of that pivotal moment: “I always saw myself in the stands, I never saw myself as the horse!” The move comes at a price, though, presaging her divorce and subsequent years as “the poster child for functional alcoholics everywhere.”
As the story moves to her brief tenure as governor, the set changes and we are in the state capital. It’s Texas, so there’s a blue armadillo tchotchke on her desk, and the governor is juggling calls about matters both pressing (whether to stay an impending execution) and casual (Monday-morning quarterbacking a game of charades played by her children: “Nobody could’ve done the Rob Lowe sex tapes!”). The narrative gets a bit repetitive at times, and might have benefited from some tightening by director Benjamin Endsley Klein, who has helmed “Ann” in its previous Washington, Chicago and Texas incarnations.
“Ann” is hardly a political play, but it has its liberal bent. There are homages to Barbara Jordan, the civil rights leader, politician and (who knew?) passionate Baylor girls’ basketball fan, but no reference to George W. Bush, the man who took the governorship away from Richards after only one term. (The play blames her 1994 defeat on Richards’ pro-gun control views.)
Some of the best anecdotes come during phone calls with an unseen Bill Clinton. We hear Richards butter him up about a pilot welfare program in San Antonio one minute, then mock him with an Arkansas joke the next. An epilogue of sorts has Richards in the final years of her life, moving to New York around the time of Sept. 11.
It’s cliche to say it, but Taylor becomes Ann Richards, mostly thanks to her witty script, and with a nice assist from costume designer Julie Weiss, who’s clothed her in a white, all-business jacket and skirt, with a sparkling Lone Star brooch. The transformation is all the more remarkable for the fact that Taylor only once met Richards, when they were briefly introduced at New York’s Le Cirque in 2004 by the columnist Liz Smith.
Taylor’s performance makes for a poignant reminder of what was lost when Richards died of cancer. It’s hard not to admire a work of art when it’s clear how much effort the author and star put into bringing it to stage; Taylor manages a demanding role with energy and aplomb, and “Ann” is, by all means, worth your vote.
“Ann,” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., for an open-ended run. Tickets: $75-$125, available at the box office, online at lct.org or through Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter @RobertKahn